Microcap as an Alternative to Private Equity

Private equity has become a central component of many institutional and high-net-worth investment portfolios over the past decade. While private equity offers potential advantages, it also requires taking distinct risks. This paper highlights an alternative to private equity—microcap equities—which mitigates several of these particular risks. 

Institutional investors have changed their asset allocation over the past 10 years. The allocation to equities has remained more or less constant (down 5 percent overall in 10 years), but the split between private and public equity shifted significantly, with private equity increasing nearly 250 percent over that time frame (rising from 6.5 percent overall to 16 percent).

   

Private equity offers several advantages, including:

Access to smaller companies

Small companies at the start of their business have higher growth opportunities. With the overall economy slowing down, investors are searching for growth—private equity can offer attractive growth opportunities compared to large cap public equities. While some private equity funds invest in larger businesses, the access they provide to smaller businesses is a distinct advantage. 

Diversification

The investment companies in a private equity fund are excluded from the investment universe and also from the benchmarks of public equity managers. 

Total return

The published returns of private equity look more attractive than public equities. The most commonly cited reason for these higher returns is that investors are capturing an “illiquidity premium.”

As we shall see, microcap equities provide similar advantages but without the baggage of illiquidity, highly uneven returns, and higher, complicated fees. Let’s look at these three key disadvantages of private equity investments.

Illiquidity 

Private equity investments require as much as a 10-year commitment, with an initial up-front payment and capital calls over the first several years. This capital is deployed into private investments that are held for several years, and gains are returned as those profits are realized through liquidity events. These liquidity events are fully determined by the private equity manager, which presents issues for plan sponsors in redeploying cash and forecasting portfolio cash flows.

For a long-term investor, this seems like a reasonable trade for higher returns. But, for many investors,low liquidity means private equity is often too restrictive. For example, many endowments have been unable or unwilling to build their allocation to the asset class. Data from the NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowments shows that the increased allocation to private equity has been driven by the largest endowments (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Allocation to Private Equity by Year and Endowment Size

Source: NACUBO Endowment Study (2003, 2008), NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowments (2013)

At the same time, smaller endowments have had much higher average allocations to cash, highlighting the need for (or concerns about) short-term liquidity within the portfolio.

Microcap public equities are less liquid than their larger cap counterparts, but they are still very liquid relative to private equities. Most microcap portfolios can be liquidated in short order. The majority of a $50M account, for example, could be liquidated quickly.

Table 3 (above) shows the estimated time to liquidate microcap portfolios of $25M and $50M, assuming an investment in our microcap model portfolio as of September 2014. These results assume we participate in 25 percent of each day’s trading volume for each individual stock. The vast majority of these portfolios could be liquidated in a week—a far cry from the multi-year lockup required by many private equity funds.

Private Equity Managers Have More Uneven Returns 

While private equity offers the prospect of  great returns, the historical results for managers in the asset class have been uneven. Reporting returns for illiquid portfolio companies is difficult, but even if the stated returns of private equity managers accurately reflect the valuation of their holdings, private equity managers still show wide dispersion in their ability to generate consistent returns. 

Figure 2: Allocation to Cash by Year and Endowment Size

Source: NACUBO Endowment Study (2003, 2008), NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowments (2013)

Table 4 compares the dispersion between the top and bottom quartile performers over the past five years for equity managers both private and public.

Such high dispersion makes access to top managers a critical component in establishing a private equity allocation—but identifying those managers ahead of time is difficult. The best quartile private equity manager had a five-year return of 14.6 percent, which is three times higher than the return for the worst quartile manager (5 percent). In contrast, the best quartile microcap manager had a return of 34 percent, which is only 1.25 times the return earned by the bottom quartile manager.

Fees 

Taken together, these issues around illiquidity and uneven returns raise concerns about allocations to private equity in the coming decade. But perhaps the most notable difference between private equity and microcaps are the fees required to access the market. As John Bogle is fond of saying, “In investing, you get what you don’t pay for.” Private equity funds can charge capital on three types of assets: committed capital, called capital, and invested assets (include-ing leveraged assets). A flat fee of 100 bps to access the microcap market  is much lower—and less complicated—than private equity fees. These cost savings compound to significant amounts over time.

The Alternative: Microcap Equity 

Microcap public equities provide the same advantages as allocations to private equity, and do so without some of the baggage associated with private equity. With microcaps, there are no concerns about accurately measuring returns or multi-year illiquidity—and fees are significantly lower. 

The total market cap of the microcap space, which we define as one having a market cap between $50M and $200M, is $146B—the same size as The Walt Disney Company’s market cap. This means that microcaps are a scarce opportunity, which is good because they are often neglected by larger institutional asset managers (and, in turn, by Wall Street). The typical microcap stock is covered by just 1.6 analysts on average, and many have no analyst coverage at all. And, whereas the largest cap public equities have an average of 1,500 different institutional owners, microcaps have an average of just 40. The lack of attention to these stocks offers up a greater chance to find attractive investments.

How to Invest in Microcaps 

Microcaps themselves often earn higher returns than the broader equity market. For the five years ending March 2014 (see Table 5 below), the median microcap manager outperformed the median large cap manager by 9.3 percent annualized.

But the real advantage of investing in microcaps is systematically buying stocks with very cheap valuations, high-quality balance sheets and earnings, and strong recent price trends (momentum). These themes—Value, Quality, Financial Strength, and Momentum—have worked even in the largest cap portion of the public equity markets. And they are much more effective and predictive in the microcap market, which is neglected and therefore less efficient.

  

Here is how we measure these key stock selection themes:

VALUE

We favor stocks that trade at cheap multiples of their sales, earnings, free cash flows, and EBITDA. We also favor companies with higher shareholder yields (dividends + net buybacks). Though shareholder yield is less common for microcap stocks, we still favor those companies that are buying back shares while avoiding the ones that are issuing large amounts of new equity. 

MOMENTUM

We favor stocks with strong recent price trends. Those stocks that have been strong relative performers over the past three to nine months tend to continue to outperform the market.

FINANCIAL STRENGTH

We favor stocks with higher-quality balance sheets, meaning reasonable amounts of leverage, strong cash flows to support debt, and low reliance on external sources of financing. 

EARNINGS QUALITY

We favor stocks with conservative principles in reporting earnings, meaning low accruals and conservative accounting choices (e.g., high depreciation-to-capital expenditures).

In Figure 5, we show the historical excess return (1969–2013) earned by the best and worst deciles of stocks ranked by Value, Quality, and Momentum. We show these results in two universes: All Stocks ($200M market cap and higher) and Microcaps ($50M to $200M).

SUMMARY 

Because the total value of all microcaps is small, its market represents a scarce investment opportunity (we estimate total capacity at a few hundred million dollars). But for those who are able to take a position, microcap equities can solve the original goals of private equity while eliminating investment issues associated with the asset class:

Better liquidity

A microcap portfolio can be liquidated in short order—in part or in full. Private equity investments are far less liquid.

Access to smaller high-growth companies

Similar to companies in private equity portfolios, many microcap companies are in the very early (and high growth) stages of their development. These companies have the potential to deliver higher returns than established large cap equities. 

Diversification

Like private equity, microcap portfolios have little to no overlap with the constituents of larger public equity benchmarks. 

Strong returns

While the asset class itself offers attractive returns, a strategy that focuses only on those microcap stocks with outstanding quality, valuation, and momentum offers even better prospective returns. 

Given its potential benefits, microcap equities can be a critical piece of a diversified portfolio.

General Legal Disclosure/Disclaimer and Backtested Results

The material contained herein is intended as a general market commentary. Opinions expressed herein are solely those of O’Shaughnessy Asset Management, LLC and may differ from those of your broker or investment firm. 

Please remember that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment, investment strategy, or product made reference to directly or indirectly in this presentation, will be profitable, equal any corresponding indicated historical performance level(s), or be suitable for any portfolio. Gross of fee performance computations are reflected prior to OSAM’s investment advisory fee (as described in OSAM’s written disclosure statement), the application of which will have the effect of decreasing the composite performance results (for example: an advisory fee of 1% compounded over a 10-year period would reduce a 10% return to an 8.9% annual return). Due to various factors, including changing market conditions, the content may no longer be reflective of current opinions or positions. Moreover, you should not assume that any discussion or information contained in this presentation serves as the receipt of, or as a substitute for, individualized investment advice from OSAM. 

Historical performance results for investment indices and/or categories have been provided for general comparison purposes only, and generally do not reflect the deduction of transaction and/or custodial charges, the deduction of an investment management fee, nor the impact of taxes, the incurrence of which would have the effect of decreasing historical performance results. It should not be assumed that any account holdings would correspond directly to any comparative indices. Account information has been compiled solely by OSAM, has not been independently verified, and does not reflect the impact of taxes on non-qualified accounts. In preparing this presentation, OSAM has relied upon information provided by the account custodian and/or other third party service providers. OSAM is a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC and a copy of our current written disclosure statement discussing our advisory services and fees remains available for your review upon request. 

Hypothetical performance results shown on the preceding pages are backtested and do not represent the performance of any account managed by OSAM, but were achieved by means of the retroactive application of each of the previously referenced models, certain aspects of which may have been designed with the benefit of hindsight.

The hypothetical backtested performance does not represent the results of actual trading using client assets nor decision-making during the period and does not and is not intended to indicate the past performance or future performance of any account or investment strategy managed by OSAM. If actual accounts had been managed throughout the period, ongoing research might have resulted in changes to the strategy which might have altered returns. The performance of any account or investment strategy managed by OSAM will differ from the hypothetical backtested performance results for each factor shown herein for a number of reasons, including without limitation the following: 

  • Although OSAM may consider from time to time one or more of the factors noted herein in managing any account, it may not consider all or any of such factors. OSAM may (and will) from time to time consider factors in addition to those noted herein in managing any account. 
  • OSAM may rebalance an account more frequently or less frequently than annually and at times other than presented herein. 
  • OSAM may from time to time manage an account by using non-quantitative, subjective investment management methodologies in conjunction with the application of factors. 
  • The hypothetical backtested performance results assume full investment, whereas an account managed by OSAM may have a positive cash position upon rebalance. Had the hypothetical backtested performance results included a positive cash position, the results would have been different and generally would have been lower.
  • The hypothetical backtested performance results for each factor do not reflect any transaction costs of buying and selling securities, investment management fees (including without limitation management fees and performance fees), custody and other costs, or taxes – all of which would be incurred by an investor in any account managed by OSAM. If such costs and fees were reflected, the hypothetical backtested performance results would be lower. 
  • The hypothetical performance does not reflect the reinvestment of dividends and distributions therefrom, interest, capital gains and withholding taxes.
  • Accounts managed by OSAM are subject to additions and redemptions of assets under management, which may positively or negatively affect performance depending generally upon the timing of such events in relation to the market’s direction. 
  • Simulated returns may be dependent on the market and economic conditions that existed during the period. Future market or economic conditions can adversely affect the returns. 

The dividend yield is a gross indicated yield. There is no guarantee that the rate of dividend payment will continue and the income derived is subject to taxes and expenses which will impact the actual yield experience of each investor.

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